Cowboys and Angels

I recently spoke with Mr. Gibson, the associate director of Lake Avenue Community Foundation in Pasadena. He told me a story about cowboys.

Mr. Gibson’s takes underprivileged kids and gathers them in the company of real life cowboys; he takes them from their disparate enclaves in southern California to a environment that disorients everybody — a dude ranch in Wyoming.

This paradigm break equalizes the kids, he told me. With everybody out of their element, nobody’s in a position to condescend. Their shared disorientation draws them toward each other, causes them to bond and begin to learn from each other.

Nowhere is this more evident than when they take part in cattle branding.

This means chasing down a calf, roping it, taking it to the ground, branding it with a hot iron, and finally castrating it.

The kids from California are traumatized. But since they have to participate, their alarm emerges instead through language. From the urban kids, the cowboys hear what one might expect to hear — language of the very bluest. Meanwhile, the suburban kids can be heard exhorting whoever’s around to “shut the front door.”

Mr. Gibson tells me that the cowboy culture is one of honor and respect. Cowboys are not the linguistic counterparts of sailors. (This seems right to me — cowboys in the movies say more deadly things with a squint than I’ve ever heard in a rap song.)

He says that the cowboys are pretty affronted by the language they hear from the students. “They’re usually quite taken aback,” he tells me. “If that was my boy,” they say, “I’d wash his mouth out with soap.”

In the meantime, through submission to violence, heat, and blood, the kids from California are being forged into people of stronger character. (That’s the idea, anyway.) And maybe, when the human psyche is brought into necessary evils such as these, the only way for it to bear up is through language.

We are made for fight, or flight, in the face of trial. When neither are possible, where can the self emerge but in language?

But I keep thinking about the cowboys.

Sin purification is some kind of trauma, and not only to the soul. Sometimes the process is like a localized surgery. But sometimes it’s more like a car accident combined with a tumor extraction. Sometimes the experienced of being renewed is very unsightly.

Sometimes the angels must wonder, like the cowboys do about the students, why it’s worth bothering at all with creatures who can’t handle their shit during a routine sanctification. One that is not only brief in duration, but is heavily supervised by a trustworthy authority.

But Mr. Gibson doesn’t bring the kids to the ranch for the benefit of the cowboys. In fact, the cowboys are there for the benefit of the kids. In fact, everything is.

If the point of salvation was its cosmetic appeal, the sanctification process would surely be an occasion for God to retract his plan.

These are things into which angels long to look.

Angels might well marvel at how vulgar I am. Sometimes even I do. I’m unlikely to realize how vulgar I am until my heart overflows out of my mouth, and I look at it, and I see what I’m being saved from.


Flickr photo (cc) byThomas Izko